America’s Only Full-time Tea Taster

The “Green Giant” mechanical tea harvester, one of only a few in the world, does the manual work of 500 people. Wayne’s View Photography/Courtesy of Charleston Tea Plantation


A Munnar tea estate in Kerala, India, where tea leaves are picked by hand. Photo by Milo Inman.

The two photos and their implications offer a pretty big contrast, but what they have in common is Camellia sinensis, the tea plant. 

Near Charleston, South Carolina, an island called Wadmalaw offers adequate habitat for the United States’ only large-scale commercial tea plantation, owned by Bigelow Tea Co. and managed for taste by third-generation tea taster William Hall. Jill Neimark reports for NPR:

Here, 127 acres of gleaming dark green tea bushes unfold in endless rows, framed against light-green fields and silvery loops of Spanish moss that festoon the oak trees. With its sandy soils, subtropical climate and generous yearly rainfall of about 50 inches, Wadmalaw is an ideal home for tea.

Rather than planting tea seeds, the Charleston Tea Plantation grows cuttings in a nursery for four years. The fledgling bushes are descendants of the same Camellia sinensis plants that were first brought to the Carolinas in the 1700s by French botanist Andre Michaux.

The plantation is owned by the Bigelow Tea Co., in partnership with third-generation tea taster William Barclay Hall, a fellow with a magnificent passion for tea and the knowledge to match it.

I spoke with Hall about the tea business while sipping a cool cuppa and gazing out at the glimmering rows of tea plants flowing like green scarves to the horizon.

Your grandfather and father were professional tea tasters. How did you become one, too?

My father suggested I go into tea. Back then you had to have family connections to be trained. London was the center of the world trade in tea at the time, and every week teas were sent to London to be auctioned off. I tasted as many as 800 teas a day, five days a week. The goal was to be able to blind taste 10 teas and identify each one’s country and region of origin, and even the tea plant used.

Were those many hundreds of cups of teas simply laid out for tasting?

About 80 were laid out at a time, on long benches. You would taste them all along with a buyer, then everything would be cleaned up and 80 more teas would be laid out.

Though there is only one tea plant, Camellia sinensis, there are thousands of varieties. But they don’t have names like Golden Delicious or Granny Smith — they have numbers. Believe it or not, all of the teas become individual to you. We have a special terminology for tea that … is hard to convey to an outsider. We might say, “This tea has good character.” Well, what does character taste like? Or “This tea is out of condition, that one is bright, that one is brisk, and this one is burnt.”

Read the rest of the article here, and learn about North America’s own “tea” plant, which used to be a popular herbal infusion, here.

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